As Democracy Fades in Port-au-Prince, Ottawa Is Backing Haiti’s Repressive Police

As conditions worsen in Haiti, Ottawa remains steadfast in its provision of resources for the repressive Haitian National Police. This stalwart aid stands in stark contrast with Ottawa’s miserliness when the social democratic Fanmi Lavalas party was in power.

A protester taunts police officers during Jean-Jacques Dessalines Day in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, October 17, 2022.(Richard Pierrin / AFP via Getty Images)

In its dealings with Haiti, Canada says one thing and does the opposite. Justin Trudeau has said that Haitians must approve the solutions to their country’s crisis. But Canada’s direct involvement with repressive policing in the country is at odds with the prime minister’s glib platitude.

Earlier this month, a tweet from Labour Against the Arms Trade stated that “the last 10 remaining senators in Haiti’s parliament officially left office, leaving the country without a single democratically elected government official. On Wednesday, a Canadian military aircraft delivered armoured vehicles to the Haitian national police.”

It’s a useful, if somewhat too simple, juxtaposition. For years Haitian elections have had little legitimacy and in mid-2021 the US- and Canada-led Core Group appointed a leader with no constitutional or popular legitimacy. Ariel Henry’s rule has led to a boost in Canada’s assistance to the Haitian National Police (HNP). Ottawa put $42 million into the HNP in 2022. In October of last year, US and Canadian warplanes delivered an initial batch of Canadian-made armored personnel vehicles to the Haitian police and Ottawa has pushed to increase UN assistance to the HNP. Last week in Port-au-Prince, Deputy Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Mike Duheme signed “a new Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate cooperation between our two countries and to strengthen the capacity of the HNP.”

Faced with elected officials in Haiti abandoning the field, Canada has decided that its signal contribution at this moment of crisis should be police assistance. But this is hardly a change of direction in Canadian support for Haiti. After the United States, France, and Canada overthrew Haiti’s elected government in 2004, Canada ploughed significant resources, including trainers and diplomatic backing, into new police. Through the 2004–06 coup period a Canadian led the police component of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).

Following the 2004 coup, Canada spent tens of millions of dollars on the HNP. This largesse stands in stark contrast with Canadian stinginess in the wake of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party election win in 2000, which prompted the severing of almost all Canadian assistance to Haiti’s police and judicial institutions.

Militarizing the Haitian National Police

By aiding the post-Lavalas HNP, Canada helped the coup regime with its repression of political resistance. Hundreds of police officers suspected of loyalty to the ousted Lavalas government were fired and some killed. At the same time hundreds of former soldiers — from the military Aristide disbanded in 1995 due to human rights abuses — were integrated into the HNP. One year after the coup, Reuters reported, “only one of the top 12 police commanders in the Port-au-Prince area does not have a military background, and most regional police chiefs are also ex-soldiers.”

Though its mission was supposed to “professionalize” the HNP, the Canadian-led UN police force contributed to the militarization of the HNP and facilitated its abuses. Amidst the post-coup violence the International Crisis Group reported that the HNP “have taken over old [Army] practices, including military-style operations in the capital’s poor neighbourhoods with little regard for collateral damage to civilians. . . . It is common to observe routine HNP patrols in Port-au-Prince carrying weapons that seem better adapted to war than police work.” A Canadian commander of the UN Civilian Police Unit declared in fall 2004 that all he had done in Haiti was “engage in daily guerrilla warfare.”

Hundreds, maybe over one thousand, were killed in political violence by the HNP in the two years after the 2004 coup. On many occasions, the Associated Press, the Miami Herald, and Reuters reported on police killing peaceful demonstrators in Port-au-Prince who were calling for the return of democracy.

Canadian officials almost never publicly criticized police killings after the coup. But prior to Aristide’s overthrow, Canadian officials claimed that he politicized the force, which was one of the ways they undermined his legitimacy as part of a multifaceted campaign to destabilize Aristide’s democratically elected government.

Killing Protestors

Since 2004 Ottawa has provided hundreds of million dollars in what is officially described as Canadian “aid” to the HNP. Two years ago, the Trudeau government even tendered a $12.5 million contract in operational support to the HNP under its Feminist International Assistance Policy. Canadian funds have helped build or refurbish many prisons and a major police academy. Through various training initiatives Canada has helped increase the size of the HNP from five thousand in 2004 to fourteen thousand. Foreign donors provide as much as half of HNP funding.

Between 2004 and 2019 a Canadian was often at the head of the UN police contingent in Haiti and officers from this country staffed its upper echelons. In June 2019 Canada’s then ambassador André Frenette tweeted, “one of the best parts of my job is attending medal ceremonies for Canadian police officers who are known for their excellent work with the UN police contingent in Haiti.” At the time a few dozen Canadian police assisted their Haitian counterparts.

While Canadian ambassadors may paint a sunny portrait of Canadian assistance, acquiring hard data on the matter is a more difficult proposition. Kevin Walby and Jeffrey Monaghan have given an account of being denied documents in spite of Access to Information requests:

Exemptions are telling. First, these exemptions demonstrate how the issue of policing in Haiti is framed in terms of national defence as much as it is framed as international development. Second, these exemptions demonstrate how high-ranking government officials in Canada have vetted our requests and acted to deny information based on its sensitivity and political salience. Third, these exemptions demonstrate that securitization of Haiti is a long-term initiative on the part of multiple government agencies.

While Canadian diplomats regularly attend police ceremonies and praise the HNP, they have almost without fail stayed mum about the force’s abundant abuses. During the remarkable popular uprising against corruption and neoliberalism between July 2018 and November 2019 the police killed dozens, probably over one hundred. Videos of police beating protesters, violently arresting individuals, and firing live ammunition during protests circulated widely. Reporting on a monthlong general strike in the fall of 2019, Amnesty International noted that, “during six weeks of anti-government protests . . . at least 35 people were killed, with national police implicated in many of the deaths.”

Good for Business

In March 2020 the Canadian government put out an outrageous — yet correct — travel advisory, warning Canadians that Haitian “police have used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse crowds.” Although quick to notify Canadians, Ottawa failed to directly criticize the killing of demonstrators by a Canadian-funded and trained force. Even when asked directly by Le Nouveliste about an incident of police repression in July 2020, Canada’s ambassador Stuart Savage refused to answer. During large protests in the fall the HNP again killed many protesters and beat many others with no comment from Canadian officials.

Aside from the HNP’s hand in direct political repression, regular Haitians have identified the force as a leading threat to their safety. According to an October report from the Institute Karl Lévêque, 40 percent to 60 percent of Haitian police have connections with gangs.

In a related problem, Haitian prisons are full of poor individuals in pretrial limbo. After the UN police mission MINUJUSTH replaced the larger MINUSTAH military force in 2017, Regroupement des Haïtiens de Montréal contre l’occupation d’Haïti wrote that MINUJUSTH’s

. . . principal objective is to help the Haitian state develop and professionalize the existing National Police . . . which will actually translate into more repression of the Haitian people . . . The power to maintain order . . . is really the power to defend the status quo, the power to keep intact the dominant order . . . One cannot pretend to “reinforce” the rule of law when the state, by its nature and orientation, exists only to defend without compromise the interests of the dominant class and of a certain political class.

The HNP enforces a highly inequitable economic order. Canadian officials are on record arguing that strengthening the Haitian police was good for business. After meeting Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe in 2014, Canada’s international development minister, Christian Paradis, linked strengthening the HNP to “attracting private investment.” Paradis said, “we discussed the priority needs of the country as well as the increased size of the Haitian National Police, in order to create a climate to attract private investment.”

Canada’s aim with Haiti’s police operates at cross purposes. To smooth the way for foreign capitalists they seek a “professional” force capable of maintaining order largely free of corruption and egregious abuses. At the same time, they want a force willing to violently suppress protests against an illegitimate regime, and that may even be prepared to oust a popular government trying to the redress the country’s vast internal inequities and foreign dependence.

A similar tension exists in Canada’s broader policies toward the country. Haiti is attractive to investors because it has the lowest labor costs in the hemisphere. Impoverishment is good for sweatshop owners such as Canada’s Gildan, but the insecurity it breeds is not. Instability and insecurity have become a substantial obstacle to capitalist interests. Canada has contributed to Haiti’s descent into chaos by imposing the highly regressive Haitian Tèt Kale Party and Ariel Henry. Canada has supported “oligarchic gangsterism” in Haiti, as I’ve noted, to quell popular, sovereign-minded forces.

Today, reinforcing the police offers some potential reprieve from the insecurity caused by neighborhood-based gangs that control large swaths of the country. But the HNP also works to further entrench an illegitimate foreign-imposed government, which is an obstacle to overcoming Haiti’s most important problems — the absence of democracy and sovereignty. Canada has chosen to support authoritarian rule that benefits imperialism and a local elite over democracy.